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PEAK Grantmaking

Assimilation and Authenticity: Being Black+ in Philanthropy

As I write this, I am struggling to find the right words to start the conversation between you and me. I want to make sure I am clear and concise, but the feelings I am giving a voice to aren’t clear nor concise. These feelings are HEAVY, and not only do they come with a weight – that I carry around with me every day – they are layered and nuanced. They are the first thing to greet me in the morning, the first thing I think about when I step out of the door, and the first thing I must manage as I step into work.

My feelings, like me, long to be understood and accepted. However, when they aren’t, the world can feel monochromatic. Some may think that is dramatic and that’s okay. But, when who you are as a person creates this conflict that leads to a path of most resistance, personally and professionally, you can understand how “fitting in” presents a certain appeal.

I’ll admit, assimilation has been a silent lesson in my life and has always been something I was taught through absorption and observation. I observed how assimilating could save me and serve me and I absorbed those lessons in subtle ways. Sometimes it was a look received from others to admonish me for being different, or a conversation with my parents about being on my best behavior around the police. And in those moments, it felt like I had to choose their acceptance over my own self-acceptance, causing me to feel isolated daily.

Being Black, gay, and gender non-binary in the nonprofit world is extremely lonely. As if being Black wasn’t already hard enough, maneuvering through this world with additional identifiers like gay and gender non-binary makes every day feel like a battle. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have to reintroduce myself to people every day. Having to walk around ready to educate the masses in order to garner support and understanding for who I am and how I identify – only to have to do it again the next day and the next day. It is exhausting and some days I don’t have the energy but then I tell myself if I don’t hold myself accountable to teaching others, then what’s the point?

It is an uncontested fact: Philanthropy, even in organizations that value diversity, equity, and inclusion, is filled to the brim with cisgendered white people. The leadership likely looks nothing like you and they most surely don’t identify the way you do, so when you enter the organization, the feeling of othering is immediate. Belonging is not the primary focus of philanthropy – it’s the mission-based work to have successful programs, thoughtful grantmaking, and a positive impact outside of the office. But, too often, grantmaking organizations do not operate this way internally. Why does it seem that they have all the energy to be innovative thought leaders in their philanthropic work, but too often fall short when it comes to building a thriving and inclusive culture?

Culture can make or break an organization, and this of course isn’t something that is unique to nonprofits or philanthropy. Countless studies underscore culture’s profound impact on the success of an organization and the people in it. However, too many organizations shy away from even attempting to create a culture that serves everyone and instead opt for a one-size-fits-all approach, which is doomed to fail the people who work there.

Even with minimal positional power, you do have the influence to try and make a change if you feel empowered to do so or find like-minded colleagues to help present a plan to leadership. For some, it can start with a commitment. One might work with colleagues to create a DEI committee within their organization to cultivate and co-create a culture that is equitable and inclusive to all.

I challenge you to make a commitment to yourself and to your organization and see it through. 

Here are a few things I have learned along the way:

  1. Create and find support systems in and out of the office that can help you navigate your career and organization.
  2. Bring your authentic self to every situation.
  3. Follow your gut and let your intuition guide you.
  4. Treat every opportunity as one to build your network.
  5. If you can’t attend a conference, find ways to attend smaller regional meetings or webinars to not only learn but forge new connections.

While this certainly can’t serve as an exhaustive list of all the ways that you will navigate your own journey, it captures many of the beacons of guidance that have been most effective for me Over time, I’ve noticed that when areas of life have been unable to support my full authentic being and belonging, it is often my colleagues who bridge a lot of those gaps. For listening to challenges I encounter, coming together to be thought leaders, or encouraging and supporting me in unimaginable ways, I say thank you! Thank you to a great network of diverse people in philanthropy who hold me accountable and check in with me. I urge you to find your network, create new connections, learn about new things you’re passionate about, and have conversations with people who understand your struggles.

I hope that what you take away from this makes you feel less lonely and that you walk away knowing that you don’t have to have all the answers or have to be the only one working to make changes in your organization.

What’s most important is that you always remember to show up as your most authentic self, not only to add color to the world around you but to be a light for those who need help out of the darkness.